Time to go back to the trenches.
The Wars explores the effort to remain human when faced with utter inhumanity.
The book opens on a scene near Bois de Madeleine (Magdalene Wood) with Robert Ross, 131 horses, a dog and many unanswered questions. Skip forward 60 years to an unnamed historian trying to learn how Ross came to his long-ago deeds in that place. Author Timothy Findley pieces the story together through a third person narrative that follows Robert before and during the war, the historian’s recount of facts and findings, and selective interviews with two women who cared for Robert later in his life: Lady Juliet d’Orsey and nurse Marian Turner.
Robert, a young man from a wealthy Toronto family, joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915 after the death of his beloved sister, Rowena. He trained in Lethbridge, was promoted to Second Lieutenant and went overseas. He had just turned 19.
Robert survives the battles at St. Eloi (near Ypres), returns to England to recover from injuries, has a brief affair, and then is sent back to the front. Throughout, the only people with whom he connects on any emotional level are those who share his love of animals. That love ultimately returns us to the opening scene played out in greater detail … an act of treason to prevent the needless slaughter of horses.
So how does one assess Robert’s treason?
Interestingly, Findley uses women’s voices to tell that part of the story. Juliet and Marian impart compassionate motives to Robert’s actions. We want to sympathize. We want to agree that two human lives were the price to pay for the horses. Yet his actions were doomed. He couldn’t possibly save the horses and ultimately he paid the price.
And how does one assess The Wars?
The horrors of war – the mud, the corpses, the uncaring leaders – Findley draws them all vividly. He depicts the lost innocence of a man and a generation, deliberately using ‘wars’ in the plural. His use of symbolism – animals, the elements – is very powerful. He has the knack of the ‘aha!’ moment that brings things home:
So far, you have read of the deaths of 557,017 people – one of whom was killed by a streetcar, one of whom died of bronchitis and one of whom died in a barn with her rabbits. (p. 158)
Findley depicts Robert’s mother on the surface as drunk and uncaring, yet she has the most human reaction to her son going to war:
She gestured back at the church with its sermon in progress. ‘I do not understand. I don’t. I won’t. I can’t. Why is this happening to us, Davenport? What does it mean – to kill your children? Kill them and then … go in there and sing about it! What does that mean?’ She wept – but angrily. (p 54)
And could there be a better summing up of the war than this:
Someone once said to Clive: Do you think we will ever be forgiven for what we’ve done? They meant their generation and the war and what the war had done to civilization. Clive said something I’ve never forgotten. He said: I doubt we’ll ever be forgiven. All I hope is – they’ll remember we were human beings. (p 158)
Still, I have problems with the book. For instance, was the rape really necessary? It struck me as gratuitous in a story already so full of other violence, and not required to push the plot forward. So why include it? If you have read the book, I would like your thoughts.
The Wars won the Governor General’s Award for fiction in 1977. Page references here are to the 1986 Penguin paperback edition that followed the movie version of the book.